15
Nov
2022

The Shadowy Nature of the Theocracy

With a burgeoning interest in the idea of Christian Nationalism, the Christian Church in America has seen a renewed interest in modified versions of theonomy. Theonomy was a politico-theological movement that arose out of Reformed theological circles in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The central figures in this movement were R.J. Rushdooney, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, and Gary DeMar. The various forms of theonomy have commonly been denominated by both adherents and critics, “dominion theology,” “Christian reconstructionism,” or “general equity theonomy.” While differences certainly exist in the specific way in which the theonomists packaged their proposals, there is a common commitment to emphasize that God desires the implimentation of the Old Covenant civil laws into the governments of the world in the New Covenant.

Legion are the problems with the theonomic proposals–not least of which is the fact that the Apostles never taught the fledgling New Covenant churches to labor for the implementation of the Old Covenant civil law into the government. Theonomy is utterly dependent upon the embrace of a postmillennialism that inevitably demands the implementation of a Christian theistic ethic into the fabric of every society. This makes nearly every form of theonomy a present non-reality that is dependent on a misconstrued eschatological hope. However, there are two other overarching hermeneutical reasons why theonomy is built on a defunct understanding of the role of the civil law in redemptive history. 

In his chapter, “The Mosaic Theocracy,” in Eschatology of the Old Testament, Geerhardus Vos explained the unique place of the theocracy in redemptive history. He wrote, 

“The eschatological idea influencing the constitution of the theocracy becomes dependent on the interaction of the type and the antitype. The future state imposes its own stamp on the theocracy, an actual institution of Israel. The theocratic structure projects its own character into the picture of the future. Heaven reflected itself on Israel and Israel became part of the future. . .There is somewhat of the shadowy, inadequate character of the prefiguration that passes over into the description of what the eschatological will be like when it comes. The antitype impresses its stamp upon the theocratic structure and imparts to it somewhat of its transcendent, absolute character. The theocracy has something ideal or unattainable about it. Its plan, as conceived by the law, hovers over the actual life of Israel. The theocracy in the idea transcends its embodiment in experience.”1

Vos proceeded to explain that this “unattainable” ideal of the eternal rule of God stamped on Old Covenant Israel served its purpose until the coming of Christ, who, in turn, spiritualized or eternalized everything about the theocracy. He explained,

“Israel fell short of the ideal at all points. This theocratic organization of Israel had something ideal about it from the beginning. It could not be attained. It hovered over the life of the people. . .The great principles and realities of theocratic life were embodied in external form. This was the only way to clothe the essence of the theocracy in a way that the Israelites could grasp. In order to keep the future eschatological picture in touch with Israel’s religion these forms had to be maintained. The prophets had to give the essence in particular forms. Eschatological revelation is presented in the language of the Mosaic institutions.

The New Testament first transposes it into a new key. Here in the New Testament it is spiritualized. In the Old Testament it is expressed in terms of perfection of the forms of Israel’s theocracy. The holy city is center; offices, organization, peace, abundance, etc. are there, but this all is to be eternalized in the messianic era, and will be free of the vicissitudes of the present era.”2

In short, Vos is suggesting that God imposed on Old Covenant Israel a shadow of His eschatological righteous rule. This shadow was to reflect the ideal until the coming of the Redeemer. The members of the Westminster Assembly made the strongest possible declaration about the expiration of the Old Covenant civil law in the New Covenant era, when they wrote, 

“To [Old Covenant Israel], as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

Everything that belonged to the Old Covenant theocracy is now spiritualized in Christ. It was not merely the types, shadows, and ordinances. It was the ceremonial and civil laws belonging to the Mosaic economy. This is substantiated exegetically by the way in which the Apostles utilized Old Covenant civil laws in their letters to the New Covenant churches. In his excellent JETS article, “The Scriptures Were Written For Our Instruction,” George Knight persuasively asserts that everything in Scripture, including the Old Covenant theocratic case laws, now has a spiritual application to the New Covenant community. He wrote, 

“In 1 Cor 9:8 ff., [the Apostle] appeals to the theocratic case law that specifies that oxen must not be muzzled when threshing (citing Deut 25:4 in 1 Cor 9:9). Paul is persuaded that this law, like others, reflects God’s view of how people should relate not only to animals but also to human beings when those human beings are involved in laboring for our benefit. .  This is not the only situation in which Paul appeals to the theocratic case laws. He does it also earlier in 1 Cor 5:13. There he refers to one or more of the passages in Deuteronomy in which God in his written word instructs the people of God to remove the unrepentant wicked man from their midst (which in the OT context is done by stoning him). And therefore Paul’s entire description of the action to be taken is that of removing the man from their midst and not associating with him, not even eating with him. We note however that the action Paul enjoins is not that of stoning but rather of putting him out of the fellowship with a view to his repentance (cf. 1 Cor 5:5). That this spiritual action becomes the NT principle for church discipline in general, rather than the act of stoning, is borne out by his comments in 2 Cor 2:6–8 where he urges that one who had been disciplined should be forgiven, comforted and restored (impossible if he has been stoned to death). Paul’s utilization of this theocratic case law shows that he regards it as teaching an important principle that must be followed by the Church, even though not in the theocratic form of stoning to death but rather in the form appropriate to the non-theocratic, non-national spiritual entity that the Church is in distinction from the Israel of the OT. Here the apostle takes account of the difference that fulfillment has brought about and at the same time maintains the principle of continuity for the instruction as it relates to the Church, and in doing so he also has “written for our instruction.”3

Those who have been swept up with various forms of theonomy (or Christian Nationalism) should reflect deeply on the redemptive-historical role of the Old Covenant civil law as well as on how the Apostles spiritually applied it to the New Covenant church. To move beyond these things is to impose an artificial, underdeveloped, and over realized worldview on the Scriptures rather than to allow Scripture to determine our understanding of the precise relationship between the Old Covenant theocracy and the New Covenant church. 

1. Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 117–118.

2. Ibid.

3. An excerpt taken from p. 10 of George Knight’s ETS artcile, “The Scriptures Were Written for our Instruction.” 

6 Responses

  1. Pingback : The Shadowy Nature of the Theocracy

  2. Rondig1@comcast.net

    You commit some fallacies…https://philosophical-theology.com/2022/09/08/westminster-civil-ethics-natural-law-and-kidnapping/

  3. Sam

    From your post: “Theonomy is utterly dependent upon the embrace of a postmillennialism that inevitably demands the implementation of a Christian theistic ethic into the fabric of every society.“ -this is very much contra Greg Bahnsen, perhaps the leading and most articulate defender of Theonomic ethics. Bahnsen: “the polemic against postmillennialism is not logically or theologically relevant to this debate with me over sociopolitical ethics.” Bahnsen, M. G. Kline, An Evaluation of his Reply

    From your post: “In short, Vos is suggesting that God imposed on Old Covenant Israel a shadow of His eschatological righteous rule. This shadow was to reflect the ideal until the coming of the Redeemer. The members of the Westminster Assembly made the strongest possible declaration about the expiration of the Old Covenant civil law in the New Covenant era, when they wrote,

    “To [Old Covenant Israel], as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

    Bahnsen: Although Israel as a political body has expired — and along with it its judicial law as a constitution — the general equity of those judicial laws is still required (Westminster Confession XIX.4). Similarly, when a public library goes out of business (and your library card thus expires), the truth of what was written in its books is not abolished or changed. Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel. George Gillespie, widely regarded as the most authoritative theologian at the Westminster Assembly, wrote: “the will of God concerning civil justice and punishments is no where so fully and clearly revealed as in the judicial law of Moses…. He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still” (“Wholesome Severity Reconciled…,” 1645). -Bahnsen, What is Theonomy?

    This issue here, is not is Israel some anti-type reflection of Heaven, but rather as the church has internalized the law, how ought that law to be applied by members of the church in civil office? What is best for human flourishing? The equity/ underlying moral principles in the law of God, or is there some other standard that Christian magistrates may embrace?

    Bahnsen: “ both Kline and theonomists acknowledge the status of Israel as a redemptive type and holy nation. This observation does not separate them. What does Kline apparently feels that this unique status of Israel implies that her sociopolitical laws are not normative for other nations, past or present. The reader will notice that throughout Kline’s review of my book, he does nothing more than appeal to this unique status of Israel as a datum. He nowhere completes the argument by showing how the premise of Israel’s unique status implies that her sociopolitical laws are not binding on any other nation. Nor does he guard against reductio counter-arguments or explicate ambiguous metaphors such as “part of … a total system of typology.” Everything points to the conclusion that Kline feels the implication is so “obvious” as to need no further comment. Theonomists, on the other hand, do not think that the unique status of Israel as a redemptive type and holy nation implies that God has a double-standard of morality, one for Israel and one for others (regarding sex, economics, truth, life, politics, or what have you). That is, theonomists do not think that Israel’s properly recognized unique status implies a discontinuity in moral standards between Israel and the nations, past or present. Who is correct, Kline or the theonomists? Does the status of Israel as a redemptive type and holy nation imply continuity or discontinuity as to moral standards? The only standard for answering this question is, not someone’s personal opinion or a favorite textbook in biblical theology, but the word of God alone.” -Bahnsen, M. G. Kline on Theonomic Politics, An Evaluation of his Reply.

    Bahnsen again: Although I was not writing a book centering on the discontinuity between Israel and the nations or the subject of typology, my sentiments are still clearly mentioned in these areas. Numerous types and foreshadows are spoken of in Theonomy (e.g., pp. 42-43, 48-49, 141-142, 153, 185, 188, 207-211, 212,213, 214-215, 216, 226, 227, 229-230, 437, 438, 450, 465, 492) — including the typology of the promised land (pp. 203, 510, 513) which figures largely in Kline’s polemic. I speak of the gospel in the Old Testament (p. 187), say that the Old Testament referred to Christ (p. 195), that all of its covenants point to Christ (p. 499). The exodus and possession of the promised land are said to be a time in Israel’s history “replete with redemptive typology of Christ and His saving economy” (p. 464). I refer to the “thorough-going pattern of foreshadowings of the New Testament reality to be found in the Old Testament” (p. 577), and I assert that the artistic and pedagogical designs of typology “inherent in the Scripture certainly must not be ignored” (p. 456)! According to Theonomy, one would learn that the relation between the Old covenant and the New is that of foreshadow and reality, anticipation and realization, expectation and fulfillment (pp. 188, 215, 227, 253).

    In particular, I speak explicitly of the “Old Testament typological kingdom” with special reference to its political aspect (pp. 418-419), of the typological value of the positive commands (such as holy war, p. 581), Israel’s rulers (p. 348), the king’s actions (pp. 408-409), and the typological and pedagogical value of the Older Testament penal sanctions (p. 457). I say that the Old Testament system was a “model” (p. 419), that Christ is the reality of which the Old Testament kingdom was the type (p. 418). I clearly state, “With respect to typology it might be suggested that Israel as a nation is a type of the church of Christ. There is certainly scriptural warrant for that comparison” (p. 455). -Bahnsen, M. G. Kline, An Evaluation of his Reply

    Sadly it seems critics of Theonomic ethics of our day have only rehashed and regurgitated poorly construed arguments against the position, and shown a lack of being well versed in the literature they have chosen to criticize. Since these objections have been answered by the late 70’s it tells me thorough and responsible scholarship has greatly diminished in the reformed world, as people uphold the tribalism of theological sub-schools over against actual scriptural study & meditation. I hope to see much less misrepresentation of other schools of reformed thought in future articles.

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